Tiger King merch shows the deep flaw of ‘true crime’ entertainment


Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage is a 57-year-old zookeeper from Oklahoma who is currently serving 22 years in federal prison for plotting a murder, fatally shooting five endangered animals, and illegally selling tiger cubs. A 2011 investigation by The Humane Society reported that baby tigers were “punched, dragged and hit with whips” in Maldonado-Passage’s zoo.

If you’ve watched Tiger King, the documentary currently ranking as the number one TV show of all time on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s likely you already know this. Still, these facts might not be the ones you took away from the seven-part true crime series. Instead, you might be thinking about Maldonado-Passage’s mullet, or Googling to see what rival zookeeper Jeff Lowe is up to, or wondering idly whether “that bitch Carole Baskin” murdered her husband.

Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage is better known as Joe Exotic – since Tiger King was released on March 20, Google searches for his moniker have jumped a hundredfold. Memes of Joe Exotic are incredibly popular, and many have been helpfully rounded up into multiple online listicles. But images and jokes are no longer the only things we produce after a hit true crime show. A number of Etsy sellers and independent businesses are now flogging Tiger King merchandise predominantly featuring – and arguably celebrating – Maldonado-Passage.

For $14 (just over £11) you can get a pair of socks featuring Joe Exotic’s most memorable sayings alongside a few cartoon crowns. For £5.50, you can get a wooden spoon engraved with his face. From greeting card retailer Thortful, you can choose from a number of Tiger King cards costing £3.29 each (“Have an Exotic birthday”), while back over on Etsy, there’s a £3.37 “Ultimate Sticker Pack” and a £12.61 prayer candle. If you live in Hanover, Pennsylvania, you can even pop over to 3 Hogs BBQ and get the Tiger King burger, featuring “a mullet of onion straws” for $12 (£10).

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It’s easy to see why online sellers have chosen to capitalise on Tiger King – the show has become the unofficial balm to those in coronavirus quarantine. Thanks to the modern mechanisms of online retail, sellers can quickly upload new designs and count on SEO to bring Tiger King fans straight to their digital storefronts. But why are people buying merchandise celebrating a known criminal who was also shown to have had problematic relationships with vulnerable young men with substance issues? What does the popularity of Joe Exotic merchandise tell us about the way we consume true crime? And should we be concerned that Maldonado-Passage is “ecstatic” and “absolutely thrilled” by his new-found fame?

A number of sellers of Joe Exotic merch did express initial interest in chatting for this piece, but stopped responding to emails or declined to comment when asked about the ethics of their products. Some sellers do have disclaimers next to their merchandise, such as the creator of an $8.40 (£6.80) Joe Exotic crochet doll pattern, who writes: “I do not in any way endorse this man’s practices, captivity of wild animals, or the actions of anyone associated with this documentary. This pattern is meant to be parody and just for fun.”

But what about people that buy these products – do they actually endorse Exotic? “He’s a shitty person,” says an anonymous 42-year-old from Connecticut who bought six sets of Joe Exotic stickers (spending just under $20). The buyer says she enjoyed watching the show while smoking weed and tried to focus on the absurdity of its cast of characters in order to “overlook” the fact that the documentary is “also incredibly sad and disturbing”. She says the show has brought everyone from her teenage nieces and nephews to her 60-year-old friends together, and she plans to share the stickers. I ask for her thoughts on Joe Exotic as a man.

“I honestly don’t even like thinking about this one, because it makes it hard to justify enjoying the show,” she says. “He’s pretty reprehensible. Manipulates and uses people.” Despite these concerns, the buyer says that because of coronavirus, the show and her new stickers are a much needed distraction. “It’s not about ethics, it’s about forgetting about the end of the world as we know it.”

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Another Joe Exotic sticker buyer, Sarah, a 39-year-old from Ohio, says she made the purchase to support a small art business. “It’s not that deep for me,” she says when asked if Tiger King merch could be considered unethical. Although she takes pains to note that she does not like or support animal cruelty, she says she would vote for Joe Exotic if he ran for public office again, like he did in 2016 and 2018. “There was something incredibly liberating just watching him,” she says, “He seemed to not give a fuck and I liked it.”

Is our ability to celebrate Maldonado-Passage an indictment of the documentary itself? Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, says she is “bothered” by true crime shows like Tiger King earning the “documentary” label.

“A lot of the ethical conflict began with the Serial podcast,” she says, “It was a hybrid between journalism and story-telling in a sense that the journalists were playing ‘hide the ball’ with the listeners – they knew things that they weren’t revealing because it made it a more compelling tale to spin out.” As a genre, Kirtley argues many of these true crime shows are “an odd hybrid of reality show and pseudo-documentary”, which causes difficulties when we consider whether we should hold them to the same ethical standards as traditional journalism.

Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty and things like that don’t purport to be journalism,” she says. She says if the people behind Tiger King didn’t consider their work journalism, they haven’t really violated ethical codes. But if Tiger King is set up as an independent piece of investigative work, “that means telling the truth” and not violating public trust. “And if that means if you’ve got a character who’s really reprehensible, then I think you have an obligation not to create the impression that they’re actually some kind of anti-hero,” Kirtley says.

Joe Exotic merchandise neatly demonstrates this conflict – its existence proves the show may have failed as a documentary but ultimately succeeded as a piece of entertainment. Had Joe Exotic’s crimes been presented in a neat, straight-forward manner before the viewer had a chance to get to know him, it’s likely he would not be celebrated on wooden spoons, stickers, and socks. Yet even so, there would always be those who wanted these products – serial killer merchandise is available across the internet and is arguably much more troubling (you can get Fred and Rose West mugs, Harold Shipman bookmarks, and Jeffrey Dahmer tote bags on Etsy).

“I personally find it offensive that there is this whole merchandising aspect glorifying an individual I personally find reprehensible,” says Kirtley of Joe Exotic merch, before noting that her standards are not universal. “The reality is we’re dealing in our capitalistic society with people who are trying to make money… What can I say? That’s kind of the American way.”

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